Community Solar Gardens – Good intentions/bad consequences

Thank you Corcoran Councilor Jon Bottema for digging into this important topic. It is relevant for all cities. Corcoran is lucky to have a council member that cares enough about his community to do his homework.

This letter was sent to the Crow River News
by Jon Bottema, Corcoran City Council member.

I read in this paper a week ago that a solar farm company is asking St. Michael to re-allow community solar gardens into their town, and it would add another to our region. I became more interested in the topic when Corcoran was given an application for a community solar garden a couple years ago.

As a Corcoran City Councilman, I felt compelled to look into it.

I wanted to be thorough, so I   began by reading the community solar proposals presented to other cities in Minnesota. I read thousands of pages of documents, and I watched hundreds of their city council minutes. Every solar company had the same pitch. So many red flags kept coming up! I was losing sleep, staying up till early In the morning trying to figure this out. I am not an authority on this topic; however, as a financial analyst, I could see that some things did not add up.

solar gardensAs part of the application process, a community considering incorporating a solar garden also gets a decommissioning plan: what happens if the solar farm goes bankrupt or ceases to function. The decommissioning plan submitted to us had Corcoran MAKING money if the company went out of business. I wondered how that could even be possible. Many towns have put themselves in financial danger, finding out too late that this it is NOT. Therefore, I would like to present to you some truths I discovered about this and other myths perpetuated by the Met Council, The League of Minnesota Cities, and especially the solar companies themselves before anyone makes a decision about community solar gardens.

Myth #1. The solar panels are recyclable.  Solar panels used in community solar gardens are NOT RECYCLABLE according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and the International Energy Agency. Though these organizations are actually advocates for solar energy, within their own documents they speak of “recycling in the future” and the “need for recycling plants.” The US, Germany, and China are the biggest users of solar panels, and none of us have figured out how to recycle them. The solar companies say that “most of the materials in solar panels are recyclable.” That is true. The non-recyclable materials make up about one percent of the weight of the panels. However, the non-recyclables are intertwined with the recyclables, and there is no technology to separate the materials. So, by weight, a majority of the panel is made of recyclable materials; however, none of the panel is recyclable because they can’t separate the non-recyclable heavy metals imbedded throughout.  It’s like saying a nuclear warhead is recyclable because it is made mostly of steel, copper and aluminum. We all know that that cannot be true. Ironically, a nuclear warhead is actually more recyclable than a solar panel because you CAN actually separate the nuclear components from the non-nuclear components.

Myth #2. Solar panels are landfill friendly. Even the solar companies’ internal publications. say they are not. I called every landfill within 100 miles of Corcoran, and all of them said flat out that they would not take them. Hennepin County works with many haulers, and they said they did not know what to do with the panels.  I spoke with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), which I learned controls everything that can and cannot go into a landfill. Before things can be determined ‘landfill friendly,’ they must pass a ‘leach test;’ the material is ground into a million pieces (similar to how it would be handled in a landfill), wet down, then checked to see if any hazardous material seeps out. The big solar panels have not been leach tested in Minnesota. The panels are, in fact, hazardous waste and would have to be buried in a hazardous waste landfill. There aren’t any in Minnesota, but there is one in Wisconsin and one in North Dakota. They will take them, but it typically costs over a dollar a pound to bury things there. Most community solar gardens contain over a million pounds of that sort of material. In some proposals, solar companies state that their panels have undergone a leach test. This is a little deceiving because what they have undergone is a ‘standing leach test,’ which is significantly different than the leach test described above. The panels are left intact and sprayed with water, and then the water is tested for hazardous materials. The standing leech test actually has no bearing on if the material is landfill friendly. The panels must be subjected to actual landfill conditions, replicated in the leach test, and, again, these panels have not, so the solar companies have no way of knowing If their panels are landfill friendly.

Myth #3. Used Solar panels can be resold. Some solar companies include in their figures a resale value of the solar panels.  In the case of decommissioning a solar farm, the solar company leads the city to believe that it can sell the used solar panels and make money on them. Most decommissioning plans include an engineering company’s analysis of what the solar panels will be worth in about five years.  For a couple of reasons, the panels are not worth much in five years. Technology is constantly advancing, so who would want five-year-old solar panels? That would be like buying a five-year-old iPhone. And- this is a big one- there actually isn’t a market for used solar panels.  They are not bought and sold in any public fashion.  One engineering firm that has been included in many solar companies’ proposals stated that they got the resale value of the used panels from the solar company; another said they hoped a secondary market would develop for the panels.  I asked both if they would stand by their numbers if asked.  Both said no.

Myth #4. The industry is safe. Solar gardens are very new, and the players change all the time. The industry is heavily subsidized and requires these subsidies to stay afloat. There have already been bankruptcies in the leading solar manufacturers and solar companies; in the case of a bankruptcy, it’s important to know that our town is number seven in line for any claims from a bankrupt company. We come after:

  1. Secured Claims;
  2. Administrative Expenses;
  3. Post-petition Unsecured Claims;
  4. Wages;
  5. Employee Benefits; and
  6. Tax Claims.
  7. Bottom line: we would not see a penny from them.

Most presentations give the town the impression of some sort of protection by saying things like, “We are a wholly owned subsidiary of XYZ company; they have a huge balance sheet and have been around for 100 years.” Keep in mind that bankruptcies of a company that is a wholly owned subsidiary do not travel up to the parent company’s balance sheet.  Essentially, the statement means nothing and offers no protection to our towns.

I could go on.

I own many solar devices, so this is not a blanket indictment on the industry or harvesting the sun’s energy.  It’s hard not to get excited about the idea of saving the planet. When I read these solar companies’ proposals, though, it sounded too good to be true. The fact is, it is. The fact is that solar companies are deceiving small towns into picking up a liability that they may not be prepared to handle.  The fact is that solar farming can cost the city a lot of money. The fact is that it’s hard to find the time to dig deep into some of these issues, but let this be a starting point. Do your own research, and encourage others to do the same.  Make an informed decision.

Jon Bottema
Corcoran City Council in Minnesota

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